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Give breakdancing a break

BREAKDANCING - a strenuous mix of gymnastics and old-fashioned jitterbugging, combining spins, splits, and impromptu on-the-ground gyrations - is kicking up a lot of dust on the streets where it happens.

In San Bernardino, Calif., store owners want to make breakdancing illegal in shopping malls unless the shakers-and-rollers have a permit - and just try to get one!

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In Broken Arrow, Okla., on the other hand, where a teen-age club would like to take breakdancing off the streets, the city council refuses to license the club.

From coast to dancing coast, the phenomenon that probably originated on the street corners of Harlem and became popular through the movie ''Footloose'' is being treated as a social epidemic, to be checked by almost any ordinance available. Old laws against loitering are being invoked. Historians of the anti-dance may speculate that not since Myles Standish marched against the Maypole dancers of Merrymount in 1626 has there been such a crackdown on free-form hoofing.

It is objected that breakdancing, with its carefree hurling of young limbs at hard pavements, constitutes a hazard to the health, not to mention an obstruction to the traffic. But although these and other arguments cannot be dismissed, breakdancing clearly challenges us sober walkers through life at a deeper level too.

All that fierce energy exploding in our civic midst can't be safe, can it? With some allowance for extremes, the answer, in fact, may be yes. Even a war dance at its worst is a lot safer than war. In San Bernardino, it is reported, street-gang warfare has gone down as breakdancing has become the ritualistic form rivalry takes.

Dancing has long been one way to work off competition among the young. In his classic study of folklore, ''The Golden Bough,'' Sir James Frazier wrote of the teen-agers dancing around the bonfires of medieval England: ''They vie with each other in leaping over the red embers.''

In the same manner, perhaps, the breakdancers play with the fire inside themselves. For the moment it remains - as with much modern art - anger under control. Decisions must be made case by case. But surely it would be a mistake to oppose breakdancing on the grounds that the high energies of art threaten society.

Whatever the style, almost any dance is a form of leaping free, a form of reaching out - a great human stretch. For Americans, popular dance tends to be the pursuit of happiness performed at the tempo of a chase.

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We dignified onlookers may underestimate how much of our own experience is expressed by the breakdancers we warily walk around.

This uninhibited whirl, even if it thrusts into our space, is violence choreographed rather than violence. We must make choices about the risks we want to ban. In a world of nuclear warheads, can the flung body of a breakdancer be judged a major threat to peace? And if we still feel inclined to break up all breakdancing, we might, in all humility, remind ourselves of one more thing: Our parents sure didn't like the way we danced either.

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